Over the weekend, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani racked up some frequent flier miles, jetting to Tehran to meet with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and sign some security and trade agreements. Ghani is not the first Afghan president to visit Iran; his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, made the trip, even blowing off US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to do so. But that was before the signing of a nascent nuclear proliferation deal by the Iranians and the US — and before the coming of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq.
Why would the Shiite Iranian government want to provide support to its much weaker Sunni-majority neighbors in Afghanistan? The two countries have actually had close ties for years, but these days the Iranians would really, really prefer to keep IS at bay — and at the top of Ghani's agenda for this trip was security cooperation in countering IS in Afghanistan. While there is only anecdotal evidence to suggest that the group is actively engaged in operations there, that hasn't stopped Ghani from blaming "Daesh" (an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State) for last week's attack in Jalalabad that killed at least 34 and wounded more than 125.
Much of the push to blame IS for violence in Afghanistan stems from the hope of both the US and Afghanistan to put together some kind of peace settlement with the Taliban. That's also one of the reasons why the US has never designated the Taliban a terrorist organization — doing so would make it impossible for the US to negotiate with them. So they've settled for simply designating certain individuals within the organization terrorists. Now Ghani appears to be blaming as much violence in Afghanistan on IS as possible.
The Taliban denied responsibility for the Jalalabad attacks — but reportedly so did IS. It's not unusual for the Taliban to claim they had nothing to do with large attacks against civilian populations, but if the Taliban appears committed to a peace process — in other words, committed to not blowing things up — America has little reason to continue its ongoing counter-terror campaign in Afghanistan. Unless, of course, Afghanistan's problem is not a Taliban problem, but an IS problem.
America wants a stable Afghanistan that can start producing a return on the massive American investment in the country, and Ghani's visit to Iran supports that goal.
What makes this even more interesting is the new intelligence-sharing agreement between Iran and Australia. Given the close ties between the US and Australia, this can't have happened without at least tacit American approval — another sign of the recent thaw in Western relations with Iran. A disagreement over Iran's support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen doesn't trump America's desire for a stable Afghanistan that's able to start producing a return on the massive American investment in the country. Ghani's visit to Iran supports that goal, because in addition to security, Iranian investment in Afghanistan was the other main item on Ghani's agenda.
Trade relations between the two countries have always been somewhat problematic, but Tehran was sending Karzai cash at the same time he was also being paid by the CIA, and the lifting of US sanctions against Iran could help free up capital for Iranian investors to pump into Afghanistan. Ghani needs foreign investment in order for Afghanistan to function as a country, and while the West has committed to continued financial support in the foreseeable future — provided Ghani can get corruption under control — Afghanistan's president has to look beyond US dollars for sources of income. Tehran is a solid source.
At this point, Kabul needs Tehran more than Tehran needs Kabul, but it's not nearly as lopsided a relationship as Afghanistan has with the United States, and establishing regional security and economic ties ensures that Ghani and his countrymen can look ahead to reduced reliance on Western support. From re-establishing ties with Pakistan, to courting Chinese investments, to hashing out security arrangements with Iran, playing nice with his near neighbors means Ghani is not alone in countering the Islamic State, or in building Afghanistan's future.
Follow Gary Owen on Twitter: @ElSnarkistani